Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
I am going to be upfront with you that, for some, this post may contain an unwelcomed or unpopular suggestion. And I know that I kind of “missed the boat” on the timing of this post—it probably would have been more appropriate before Advent, on Christ the King. Oh, one other thing to be candid about: this is a post that is going to suggest that if you don’t already sing some praise and worship in your congregation, now might be the best time, in this month and a half-ish between Christ the King and Epiphany. In fact, I won’t be suggesting you try on just any praise and worship from the last 40 years, but what we might call “classic” praise and worship. Better yet, you’re welcome to call it “traditional” praise and worship. I’m talking about the stuff from the mid- and late-1980s, the songs that came out before CCLI was a thing and before Christian bookstores picked it up and before the CCM industry saw the market value in it. I guess you might just call it “hipster” in that way—”traditional” praise and worship was doing it before it was cool.
You might be wondering what, exactly, this so-called “traditional” praise and worship was doing? And what that non-liturgical charismatic praise and worship stuff has to do with the so-called “liturgical” calendar?
It’s no mystery that the central themes of the Advent season revolve around waiting, anticipation, patience, preparation, and expectation. These themes are quite appropriate for this first season of the church calendar that celebrates the grand narrative of Christian hope that ended last week with Christ the King Sunday. The King has now crowned the liturgical year, and we’re back to the beginning of our story in time: Christ the King not-yet.
If your experience in congregational song is anything like mine, the deepest sense of expectation during Advent is actually for the opportunity to sing Christmas carols. Radios and shopping malls everywhere have long beat us to the punch, and it’ll be another three weeks before many communities let their O come‘s become has come’s. We (myself included) can often be quite zealous about our careful navigation of the liturgical calendar. We’ve got a cosmic story to tell and only 52ish Sundays a year to tell it, much less the four of Advent and the one Sunday after Christmas. Time is short. Choose carefully, choose wisely.
For so many, the songs themselves are the greatest reason for the season. I don’t mean to be harsh but—as you probably know from experience—no other season of the Christian year is so infused with popular demand for a certain repertoire of music. In the span of just a few days, many communities celebrate a Lessons and Carols service, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Church Christmas Pageants/musicals, not to mention all the concerts put on by schools and community organizations (also not to mention those of you who livestream musical events like those at St. Olaf College or King’s College Choir Cambridge—you know who you are).
In the midst of our waiting for this short flurry and flourish of appropriately Christmas-y repertoire, how can we infuse a deep sense of expectation for the coming of Christ himself? How can we help Advent sound its own part of the story? Do we commit to only the “traditional” Advent carols and the medieval church modes?
Pentecostal and charismatic traditions have something to teach the rest of the church about a fervent expectation and experience of God in worship. Sure, we have had some inter-Christian disagreements about what happens when God is “manifestly” present, and that’s fair enough. But what I think we in congregational song can learn is another musical way to celebrate the basic rhythm of Christian worship in revelation and response and in expectation and fulfillment and how we might more deeply join in the palpable sense of excitement that God is truly making Godself present in our worship and in the world, and God is doing so powerfully.
One thing traditional praise and worship does well is generate a sense expectation. In fact, the expressed goal of these songs and their use in worship is to facilitate the journey from expectation to fulfillment of God’s coming in Christ through the power of the Spirit. And not with the journey itself as the goal, but the celebration of the very presence of God.
Now, if there’s one thing that I feel confident in saying that this season of Advent to Christmas is about; one thing that matters for our participation in the present portion the Christian narrative; one thing that we can hang our discipleship hats on, it’s so that we have the palpable sense of expectation that is ultimately fulfilled with an enjoyment of God’s presence in the incarnation; Emmanuel, God with us. Traditional praise and worship can help us do this well, if we give it the opportunity and take it on its own terms.
Here’s one great example: go have a look/listen at the early Integrity’s Hosanna! Music tapes from the mid 1980s—a great place to start would be the tape “All Hail King Jesus” from 1985 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlAWfJl8Ljo). I mentioned in the opening that this would have been quite appropriate on Christ the King Sunday— “but wait, there’s more!”—listen to how chock-full the songs are with language of expectation directly from the Psalms and Prophets and invites our direct response to the great acts of God, especially in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the album, it moves from boisterous praise and confident statements of beckoning or expectation into quieter songs of response to the enthroned Jesus Christ. It’s a very cosmic—and very Advent-friendly—narrative.
Use these (or others from this repertoire), and make them your own. But also be sure to give them the space they need to do the work they were made to do. So to say, take some cues from this album as to how the performance practices might do as much work as the texts in generating a strong sense of expectation and fulfillment. The other great part about traditional praise and worship is that the instrumentation is highly adaptable. You can do it with virtually any arrangement of musicians that will suit your context and your services. Because these were originally done in orchestral settings, it makes for a much easier process of simplifying to suit your context than “complexifying” to suit. Take for example the title track mentioned above, “All Hail King Jesus” that Lifeway offers in lead sheet, chord chart, piano, vocal, and full orchestral versions (print or as digital files). All very easily accessible. But don’t just do one song, do a whole set, musical transitions and all. It’s called “flow.”
All this to say: I hope we continue to reach across the musical boundaries that have grown up around us to celebrate the good in other traditions of congregational song in Christian worship by participating in them. “Traditional” praise and worship has something to offer all of us in learning how to deeply experience and rehearse the story of the coming of Christ in Advent and Christmas as more than a symbol of Christian unity, but an embodiment of it. As Rosa’s recent blog reminded us so keenly: our singing is an act of love, not just with our lips or ears but with our actions and our presence. We celebrate in sung prayer and presence as an act of love for each others’ diverse experiences of God. And all of this stems from the layers of hope, expectation, and ultimate fulfillment we find in this first season of the Christian year, and ultimately in God’s eschatological fulfillment to which the year so beautifully points.
 The title track of the album, “All Hail King Jesus” Words and music by Dave Moody. © Copyright 1978 Dayspring Music, LLC.
One thought on ““Traditional”(?) Music for Advent and Christmas: A Recommendation”
Thanks for this, Adam! Also check out The Miserable Offenders Keepin’ the Baby Awake: Music for Advent and Christmas, from 1993.
Comments are closed.